Bruce Dow on being Bottom

Actor Bruce Dow had a confession to make.

“I never thought I’d do Bottom.”

He described Midsummer Night‘s Nick Bottom, a weaver, and member of the theatrically inclined craftsmen, the Mechanicals: “Bottom is such a braggart. My natural comedy is more self-effacing than that. I never thought of myself in this bombastic role.”

Bruce Dow

Dow is certainly not complaining about his Washington, D.C. engagement. “I feel so lucky to be in this city. It is one of the best theatre towns in the country. And I am happy to be working with this company. What Michael Kahn has got going on here is insanely brilliant,” Dow said, referring to STC’s artistic director.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows two sets of mismatched young lovers from the court of Duke Theseus of Athens. When Helena, Lysander, Hermia and Demetrius flee the city for the nearby forest where they encounter the powerful fairy kingdom. Bottom also runs across the fairy folk, especially Titania, queen of the fairies, who memorably falls in love with the weaver, after a spell is cast giving him the head of an ass.

The magical comedy comes to the Harman with quite a pedigree. Aside from being one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, the Dream company boasts a who’s who of talent from Canada and the United States.

From Canada, Dow is joined by two performers on whom he heaps high praise: Tim Campbell and Sara Topham. “They are both brilliant,” said Dow.

Tim Campbell doubles as the Duke Theseus and the conniving fairy king, Oberon. Sara Topham plays both the Duke’s bride Hippolyta and Titania, the fairy queen. All three have appeared over numerous seasons at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and other prominent theatres. Topham played Gwendolyn in the critically acclaimed Stratford Ontario production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which transferred to Broadway. This season, she returns to the Stratford Festival as Juliet.

Dow also expressed appreciation for his fellow Mechanicals. “What an amazing bunch of guys. When we get into the rehearsal room, six great actors, all with comic minds – it’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

In rehearsal: Ted van Griethuysen as Peter Quince and Bruce Dow as Bottom (Photo: Christian Low)

The Mechanicals are lead by Washington, D.C. theatre legend Ted van Griethuysen as Peter Quince. “I am envious of his resume,” said Dow. Running the gamut from Shakespeare and other classics to roles in the plays of Samuel Beckett and Alan Bennett, van Griethuysen most recently reprised his role as the King of France in the STC Free-for-All revival of All’s Well that Ends Well.

The other Mechanicals are David Graham Jones (Francis Flute), Robert Dorfman (Snug), Christopher Bloch (Robin Starveling), and Herschel Sparber, as Tom Snout. Sparber will be easy to spot, Dow pointed out, since he is 6 feet 9 inches tall. The young lovers are Robert Beitzel as Lysander; Amelia Pedlow, Hermia; Chris Myers, Demetrius; and Christina Clark, Helena.

Ethan McSweeny returns to STC (Much Ado About Nothing,The Merchant of Venice) to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Dow declared McSweeny to be “amazing to work with.” His directorial approach to this incarnation of Shakespeare’s enchanted comedy was personal. “In the beginning, Mr. McSweeny talked about how he first came to the play as a young boy.”

STC’s guide to the play hints that sumptuous costumes and innovative use of props will be a hallmark of McSweeny’s production where “theatre, magic, ghosts and fairies become one in the ruins of an abandoned theatre.”

Dow confirmed, “It’s all about the magic of the theatre, and takes place in a theatre. But it is not set in Shakespeare’s time period, it’s somewhere in the middle of the last century.”

Bruce Dow as King Herrod in Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Bruce Dow came to Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company after a chance meeting with McSweeny. While appearing on Broadway as King Herod in the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar last season, Dow flew back to Ontario for a special event honoring outgoing artistic director Des McAnuff’s tenure at Stratford.

Dow ran into McSweeny at the celebration and they found they admired each others work even though they had never worked together. “Ethan asked me what I was doing in the fall and I jokingly responded, ‘Working with you.’”

He got quiet and looked serious and we spoke about the upcoming production of  Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Then a week later, I got a call from my agent inviting me to play Bottom.

During a twelve season run at Stratford, Dow was able to straddle the classics, operettas, and musical theatre roles. His credits during that time include The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and made a memorable Dromio of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors.

Among his Stratford musical roles (Nanki-Poo in The Mikado, a critically acclaimed Sancho in Man of La Mancha, the Baker in Into the Woods) came another unexpected role: The Emcee in Cabaret.

“I went into that audition thinking there was nothing for me in Cabaret,” being too young for Herr Schultz and too old for the Nazi sympathizer Ernst. “The director Amanda Dehnert said why not sing one of the Emcee’s songs. I did and the next thing I knew, I was cast as the Emcee.”

Memorably played by the slightly built Joel Grey in the original production and the 1972 film, Dow made for an equally larger than life master of ceremonies for the Kit Kat Club – but one who was also larger due to the actor’s sizable frame. The actor admits to having struggled with his weight throughout his career, but once he became comfortable with his size, roles started coming.

Dow said, playing the Emcee and singing the Kander and Ebb score in the musical set in a decadent Berlin in the 1930s was “one of the best experiences of my life.”

He said he had to get used to unusual comments for that performance, however. “After a show, audience members would say things like ‘When I first saw you onstage, I thought you were so fat you would explode. But you were really good.’”

Critics agreed with the “really good” assessment of Dow’s work in the 2008 production. Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star said, “Our guide, of course, is the Emcee, radically reinterpreted here by Bruce Dow to be part Satan and part Rosie O’Donnell. Dow is like a silent movie clown on acid: all seeing, all knowing, all leering. Dow is superbly confident and delivers his songs with all his old panache, but with a new and frightening edge.”

Dow appreciated director Amanda Dehnert’s willingness to cast him as the Emcee. “When a director or company does something different with a show or a role like that, it can change the audience’s mind.”

Bruce Dow has recorded two albums:
Keepin’ Out of Mischief
Lucky to Be Me

He was also lucky that international film and stage star Christopher Plummer saw and admired his work in Cabaret. Plummer and director Des McAnuff invited Dow to join the cast of  The Tempest, which was produced the following season at Stratford, and filmed live on the Festival stage. Plummer was Prospero and Dow was cast as Trinculo, a jester.

It was a gift to work with Plummer as the leading player, said Dow. “Christopher Plummer is the sweetest man. And there is no pretension about him, he’s working just like everyone else. The beauty is the simplicity of his work, making the words work.”

Cabaret and The Tempest are career highlights, along with his current A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for the versatile Dow. The Seattle native, raised in Vancouver, has degrees in acting and directing from Canada’s University of British Columbia. He has performed in everything from classical plays to musical theatre and rock operas. He has appeared in sketch comedy on Canadian television, and made several trips to Broadway. After starting his professional career as a swing in the original Canadian production of  Les Misérables, he has been to Broadway with Anything Goes, The Music Man, Jane Eyre and the most recent Jesus Christ Superstar.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
November 15 – December 30, 2012
Shakespeare Theatre Company
at Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC
Tickets: $43-$105
Tuesdays thru Sundays with some exception
Tickets or call 202 547-1122

Singing is something that Dow came to from a young age, which he has continued throughout his professional career. As a seasoned cabaret performer, with a range of standards and musical theatre songs, critics have said, “Dow proves he can turn a song into an emotion-filled story and give it real personality.”

But for a short time, Dow thought he might not sing – or use his voice again. While playing the leading role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Dow said he developed a vocal problem that nearly stopped his career. “I had a fifty-fifty chance I would get better, and luckily it all worked out.”

Flipping from musical theatre to Shakespeare to Andrew Lloyd-Webber is something Bruce Dow takes in stride. “I was lucky in my theatre training; my professors believed acting is acting. There is no difference between any of it.”

“The script gives you the the mental and emotional world of the play. You look at it and decide, ‘am I living in a world of iambic pentameter or do I have to sing here?’”

Shakespeare Theatre Company audiences will get to share Dow’s performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from November 15 to December 30, 2012 at Sidney Harman Hall.

Jeffrey Walker About Jeffrey Walker

Jeff has written for DC Theatre Scene since 2012, turning in nearly 150 reviews or features – and counting. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. He appreciates the opportunity to write about the rich variety of theatre in the DC-MD-VA area. Jeff lives safely below the Beltway where he is a theatre educator, novice playwright, husband and father. He is also an experienced director and actor and has performed in musicals, Shakespeare, classics, operettas, and contemporary works. He is a graduate of Roanoke College. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffwalker66


  1. Jeffrey Walker says:

    Betty: Thanks and glad you enjoyed the show. I had the pleasure of seeing it twice and it was even better the second time around. I brought a group of 40 from a high school and they were all enthralled by the production.
    It was a pleasure to talk to Bruce and then see his larger than life performance.
    ~ Happy Theatre-going! 

  2. Betty Murphy says:

    Thanks for the background on Bruce Dow.  I saw him as Bottom last weekend and thought he was absolutely brilliant!



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